Sexual Assault and Memory Effects

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Updated: May 16, 2022
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Majority of people would agree that sexual assault is bad, but in what ways? We know that it can be very damaging to the individual who has experienced such a traumatic event and in some cases it can be life altering. This literature review explores the different possible ways in which experiencing sexual assault could affect memory. Some research shows that it is more damaging to the self-concept, like self-esteem rather than have an effect on memory. There has been a lot of media attention in recent years regarding sexual assault and it can lead to a lot of misconceptions.

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What is considered trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to an event or experience that has the potential to leave a lasting impression. It is an all-encompassing term that can be applied to anything that is deeply distressing or disturbing to an individual. A traumatic event could be a positive or negative thing and it does not always have to be something horrific; which is something that comes to mind when thinking of the term traumatic. It could be a variety of things like experiencing a hurricane, sexual assault, having a baby, experiencing a serious injury or experiencing combat. Acute responses to trauma (typically within a month after exposure) vary depending on the nature of the traumatic event (Quidé, Y. et al, 2018). Everyone reacts to trauma differently and not all trauma victims are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Current research and conflicting evidence

There have been a lot of inconsistencies with current research. Once of the issues is with the research between traumatic memories and emotional memories. The issue being that some researchers see them as completely separate entities and others see them as extremely similar. Emotional memories are events that evoke a strong emotional response. Emotional memories are not as overwhelming or stressful, but they have more of an emotional impact and component than traumatic events. They are unique, but ultimately used together and looking at them together could be more beneficial to the individual who has experienced either one. Based on a current research study they found that regardless of if the memory was an emotional or traumatic one if it was a positive experience then it was associated with more sensory details that could be recalled (Sotgiu, I., & Mormont, C., 2008).

Does traumatic experiences like sexual assault affect memory recall?

There is also quite a bit of conflicting research on the topic of memory because some research says that depending on the trauma type, it can affect different memory functions. It is therefore possible that survivors of sexual assault may not show the same cognitive deficit profile as survivors of other trauma (e.g., motor vehicular accident or other types of interpersonal violence) (Quidé, Y. et al, 2018). One study found that there were no differences between their control group; which was those who had not ever been assaulted in any way and the sexual assault survivor group for brain activation during mental imagery tasks. They also found that the survivor group did not show any differences between their working memory and difficulty with response tasks. A different study found similar results, that there were no differences with regard to other memory characteristics, such as the overall memory of the event, vividness, emotional responses, frequency of thoughts about the event, memory for spatial details, and confidence in memory accuracy (Sotgiu, I., & Mormont, C., 2008).

Does intoxication play a role in memory encoding?

Alcohol can reduce the clarity of perception and depth with which information is processed, reduce working memory capacity, and, as a result, reduce the likelihood and detail with which information is transferred into long-term memory and consolidated (Davis, D., & Loftus, E. F. 2015). This is an issue because it means that alcohol can inhibit the way we miss details because it was not encoded. This also develops into another issue of false memories. False memories occur when someone does not encode or remember certain things and the brain or other people who were witnesses or just bystanders that remember the event or memory fill in the blanks of whatever it is the person does not remember. These fill in the blanks then become our memories and it can be inaccurate information that we think we remember. From previous research it has been found that memory follows the focus of attention, such that what is not attended to is not encoded into memory (Davis, D., & Loftus, E. F. 2015). This is a huge problem because small significant details people are asked to recount might not have been encoded at all. This can be applied to other sorts of crime like witness testimonies and not just those who have experienced sexual assault.


Within the media there is the idea that alcohol is the only reason sexual assault occurs and that misconceptions is a stereotype that needs to be reevaluated. There needs to be a different mindset within our society to advocate for victims and promote doing good. There also needs to be more research on the lasting emotional effects caused by sexual assault. One study pointed out a huge limitation and future research direction in that researchers have restricted their attention to people affected by PTSD symptoms (Sotgiu, I., & Mormont, C., 2008) and they should look to expanding the research to other areas of trauma. Unwanted sexual experiences happen to men and not just women and I think it would be interesting to compare the research between them. Another thing that would be a good direction would be to try to create fewer inconsistencies within the research. Studies conducted from a clinical perspective have focused on memories of traumatized individuals who experienced highly stressful or violent events; on the contrary, studies conducted from a cognitive perspective have focused on memories for artificial or simulated events that were emotionally arousing but not traumatic (Sotgiu, I., & Mormont, C., 2008). Even though the present studies did not show a correlation between memory recall and having experienced sexual assault I think it is a huge step in rebutting the many misconceptions that occur when discussing sexual assault.


  1. Davis, D., & Loftus, E. F. (2015). REMEMBERING DISPUTED SEXUAL ENCOUNTERS: A NEW FRONTIER FOR WITNESS MEMORY RESEARCH. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 105(4), 811-851. Retrieved from
  2. Goodman, G. S., Ogle, C. M., Block, S. D., Harris, L. S., Larson, R. P., Augusti, E., . . . Urquiza, A. (2011). False memory for trauma-related deese-roediger-McDermott lists in adolescents and adults with histories of child sexual abuse.Development and Psychopathology, 23(2), 423-38. doi:
  3. Ishikawa, R., Kobori, O., & Shimizu, E. (2015). Unwanted sexual experiences and cognitive appraisals that evoke mental contamination. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 43(1), 74-88. doi:
  4. Littleton, H., PhD., Grills-Taquechel, A., & Axsom, D., PhD. (2009). Impaired and incapacitated rape victims: Assault characteristics and post-assault experiences. Violence and Victims, 24(4), 439-57. doi:
  5. Maxwell, K. (2016). A comparison of treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms: Memory specificity training (MeST) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT) (Order No. 10307559). Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1871149620). Retrieved from
  6. Sotgiu, I., & Mormont, C. (2008). Similarities and differences between traumatic and emotional memories: Review and directions for future research. The Journal of Psychology, 142(5), 449-69. doi:
  7. Quidé, Y., PhD, Dufour-Rainfray, D., Brizard, B., M.Sc, Ogielska, M., M.D., El-Hage, W., Cléry, H., PhD, . . . Osterreicher, S., M.D. (2018). Neurocognitive, emotional and neuroendocrine correlates of exposure to sexual assault in women. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience : JPN, 43(5), 318-326. doi: 
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Sexual Assault and Memory Effects. (2021, Nov 21). Retrieved from